I put up the first part of this story quite a long time ago. I have made minor edits to that, and written the rest of the story, so this post is the full text.
I put aside the soldering iron and sat back to survey my work. It wasn’t the neatest job I’d ever seen, but then, I’d never been much of a modder. Oh, just like everyone else I’d modded a PlayStation to play import games, but that was almost twenty years ago now, and I hadn’t exactly done the neatest job back then, either.
The point was, it was finished and would probably work. If, of course, the website I’d ordered the mod chip from wasn’t a hoax. I’d been burned before with seemingly legitimate websites that turned out to be much shadier than they looked, most recently picking up an HDMI to VGA adapter which turned out to be (a) illegal and (b) almost completely non-functional.
I was pretty certain the mod chip I’d just installed in my new camera wasn’t illegal, because the tech was too new to be banned yet. I worried anyway, though I could no longer tell how much of that was due to legitimate concern and how much due to the inevitable jitters engendered by three days of high caffeine and low sleep.
Regardless, I put the back of the camera back on and screwed it into place. It was time. I turned the camera on. For a moment my heart froze in my throat, where it had decided to take up new residence, as the camera’s screen stayed black a little longer than I expected, but then it booted up normally. I selected the little icon of the clock in a crosshairs and carefully picked my date and location. Then I pointed the camera and took a deep breath.
“Are you really sure you want to do that?” asked a high-pitched voice like the tinkling of tiny bells.
I looked up and around. A soft pink ball of light was hovering outside my window, where the sound had come from. As I stared, it tapped against the window pane with a gentle tink.
I blinked a few times. It was still there. Tink!
I walked slowly over to the window and bent down to examine the pink thing more closely. As near as I could tell, it was just a fuzzy pink ball of light. Tink! Tink!
“Will you let me in?” the ball demanded. “It’s cold out here, and I think it’s starting to snow!”
For lack of any better ideas, I opened the window and the thing darted inside. It darted about the room a few times, then zipped up into the air in the middle of the room. I got the sense it was trying to orient itself.
Then: “Aha!” went the bells, and it floated over to my desk, where it settled down next to the camera. The light began to fade, to reveal a slender woman about five inches tall, with mauve skin, a triangular face, and a large (for her size) shock of pink hair. A pair of antennae protruded from high on her forehead, and four iridescent dragonfly-like wings from her back. She could not be anything but a fairy.
“Great, I’m hallucinating from lack of sleep,” I said.
“Quite possibly,” she answered, “but that’s not why I’m here. The Hallucination Fairy is a completely different division. I’m the Continuity Fairy.”
“…the what?” I might as well play along. It’s not like you can make hallucinations go away by ignoring them.
“The Continuity Fairy. Well, a Continuity Fairy, anyway.” She pulled a tiny little index card out of–well, out of nowhere I could see, actually–and read from it. “We have detected a probability nexus resulting in retrotemporal distortion originating from this location in approximately twenty minutes, most likely resulting from abuse of a ThioTime ™ brand future-sensitive camera. As the Continuity Fairy, it is my responsibility to ensure that such distortions do not occur.” She smiled brightly and put the card away wherever it had come from. “So: don’t do it, okay?”
“Um,” I answered.
“Something the matter?” she asked.
“If you’re the Continuity Fairy, how come you needed to read that off a card? Haven’t you been doing this for millennia or something?”
She pouted. “If you must know, I’m on interoffice loan. I’m normally a Parking Fairy.”
“You know, I cause open spaces in crowded lots, that sort of thing.”
I pondered this a moment. “You must not be very good at your job.”
She put her fists on her hips and leaned forward. “It’s not my fault!” she tried to yell, though it came out as more of a squeak. “We’ve always been understaffed, and now with you, you… you mortals running around inventing Time Cameras and Time Tunnels and Time Machines, half of us have had to move over to assisting the Continuity Fairy! Poor thing is so overworked her antennae are drooping!”
I held up my hands to ward her off. “Sorry, sorry!” I sat back in my chair and studied her a moment.
“Well?” she asked.
“Well, will you promise not to go back in time and muck up all our paperwork?”
I sighed. “Sorry,” I said. “I have to.”
“But why?” she pouted.
I sighed and looked at my workbench, meaning of course my living room, i.e. only, table, and at the camera sitting on it. “Things to fix.”
She groaned and buried her face in her hands. “Of course,” she said. “Look, try to understand this from our perspective, okay? These Time Cameras already have us overworked, what with you lot suddenly starting to photograph the past, forcing us to fix glitches you never would have noticed before. No, that’s not enough, you have to start figuring out how to break the safeties and photograph the future, too! Yeah, to you it’s just lottery numbers and TV spoilers, but to us it’s total continuity violation, glitches everywhere, you have no idea how hard it is to fix!” Her wings vibrated angrily. “But the worst, the absolute worst, are you people turning them into time machines and gallivanting into the past to–wait, how did you even know how to do this? I thought we got that site shut down!”
I shrugged. “Wayback Machine. Didn’t keep the diagrams, but it took maybe five minutes to find them on Pirate Bay.”
“Dammit,” said the fairy. “Look, what are you even trying to fix? It can’t be that bad.”
“My father died when I was thirteen,” I said, flatly factual. Perhaps I should have been dramatic, angry or sad or bitter, but it’s hard to get that worked up about something that’s been true for two thirds of your life.
“Oh,” she said. “Some kind of accident, or violence, and you think you can–“
“Cancer,” I said.
“Cancer,” she said back. “You’re going to go back in time and cure cancer? Are you even a doctor?”
I shrugged. “No. But it was lung cancer. He was a smoker. I figure if I go back far enough, convince him to quit–“
The fairy sighed and folded her wings. Her antennae drooped a bit. “You never tried as a kid?”
“Well, yeah, but–“
“So you think some random stranger he doesn’t recognize will do better? You think there’s any chance he’ll believe you if you claim to be his son?” She spoke softly, but there was an edge to the words. Her folded wings weren’t vibrating, but the air around her seemed to be.
“I have to try!” I snapped.
The fairy made a sweeping gesture with her arm, as if to gather in my apartment, its tiny spaces, the mess, the shelves packed to overflowing with books, the tiny inflatable mattress on the floor. “Why? Because you blame his death for this?” Her voice rose. Despite its high pitch, there was no longer anything cute or small about it. “Because you think if you go back and make him not dead, you won’t be alone? Won’t be stuck? Won’t live in a dump? You think you’re the first person who thinks they know where there lives went wrong?”
“No!” I shouted back. My anger was the opposite of hers. As always, when I got angry, my voice got squeaky and my eyes stung. Anger made me feel as it always did, small, and vulnerable, and tired, and that just made me angrier. “Because he was my dad, and I loved him, and he was terrible! Because he was the gentlest, kindest, most loving man in the world on his meds but he never loved us enough to stay on them! Because I was terrified of him when he was off, and just as scared when he was on because he might go off! Because we were living in poverty and filth when he died and his insurance money was the only reason we got out!”
The fairy looked up at me curiously, her head tilted to the side, one antenna raised. “I don’t understand,” she said, soft again.
I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, trying to steady myself. “Dad did more for me by dying than he ever did alive. I could never have gone to college, I’d never have my career, if he had lived.” I couldn’t hold it, the squeak and volume rose again, a physical pressure in my throat and behind my eyes. “What kind of son is better off without his dad? All this crap,” I waved my own hand around the room, “is the best of all possible worlds, and that’s wrong.” I forcibly plopped back down in my chair at the workbench and reached for the camera.
“Wait!” she cried, flying over to me and hovering in my face, wings beating invisibly fast, like a hummingbird. “Listen! Don’t you think this is what he wanted? For you to have a better life if something happened to him? Does having a good father make you a bad son?”
I shook my head. “You don’t get it,” I said. “He wasn’t a good father. He was a well-meaning father who sucked at it for reasons outside his control, and knowing that is what makes me a bad son. I have to put things right.”
“Please,” she said. “Think about this. If he were here, would he want this? If you’re doing this for him, think about him! And then, if you can honestly say to me that this is the right thing to do by him, the right way to honor him, then…” She sighed and settled down on the table. “Then I won’t stop you. You can go ahead and change history and my sisters and I will just have to deal with the cleanup.” She stepped aside and gestured to the camera. “So, can you? Can you truthfully say this is what he’d want?”
I picked up the camera and thought about my dad.
At least, that’s what I’d like to say. But that’d be a lie.
The truth is, I picked up my camera and thought about thinking about my dad. I thought about missing my dad, and hating him, and being scared of him. I thought about the person I was and the person I became and the long, ugly road in between. I thought about what I owed him. I thought about how much worse my life would be if he were still around, and how much I loved him, and how much I hated thinking this way.
I thought about the things that live in us, wear our skins and smile with our faces, speak with our voices and think with our thoughts.
But I don’t think I ever, in that long moment that stretched out between me and the camera and the small purple insectomammaloid, actually thought about my dad.
But I put down the camera. “I can’t,” I said.
The next day I visited dad’s grave for the time since. He wasn’t any less there than anywhere else, but the symbolism felt right.
I have had this story, its concept, its beginning and ending, in my head for the better part of a decade. In that time, I have written its beginning many times. This is the first time I have made it to the end.